The Kochs Don't Appreciate Being a Liberal Caricature

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The conservative industrialists continue to play a totemic role in leftist demonology, but they don't have to like it.

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At this point, the status of the Koch brothers as figures of cartoonish conservative evil in the liberal imagination is well cemented. They've become shorthand, to those on the left, for the craven, heartless greed of the unfettered capitalistic impulse -- stock figures in Democratic efforts to rile up the base. But this is not how the Kochs see themselves, it turns out. And so Charles and David Koch continue to wage a battle, probably fruitless, to fight what they see as their unfair demonization.

The idea of the Kochs as the ultimate shadowy bankrollers of the right wing has not lost its power, judging by the frequency with which it continues to appear. This week, for example, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent supporters a fundraising email urging them to open their wallets to combat "Romney, Rove and the Koch Brothers," a reference to anti-Obama ads being run by the Rove-advised super PAC American Crossroads and the Koch-linked American Energy Alliance. And the Obama campaign, in a press release, blasted a new report saying health-care reform would increase the deficit by tying it to the Kochs: "TODAY'S 'REPORT' BOUGHT AND PAID FOR BY THE OIL BILLIONAIRE KOCH BROTHERS," said the headline about the study by the Mercatus Institute, which was launched with a grant from the Kochs over a decade ago. "The Koch brothers and their allied organizations first spent millions of dollars attacking the President in an attempt to maintain taxpayer subsidies for oil and gas companies that are making record profits and boosting their own bottom line," Obama campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt said in the press release. "Now, they have bought and paid for a false, partisan report."

In a statement from their top spokesman, Philip Ellender, the Kochs protested this depiction of them as seeking to manipulate the political process in the service of their own bottom line. "In fact, [Koch Companies Public Sector LLC] has consistently and for many years opposed government subsidies of any kind and urged the government to discontinue them," Ellender said, pointing to the company's opposition to natural-gas subsidies. (The Obama campaign countered by noting efforts by Koch lobbyists to preserve oil-company tax breaks.)

This is only the latest back-and-forth between the Kochs and their antagonists -- they recently got into it, along similar lines, with Obama campaign manager Jim Messina after he put them to similar symbolic use as stock villains in a fundraising missive, with a response that charged Messina with wanting to stifle honest ideological debate. The real issue appears to be the Kochs' unwillingness to accept their lot in life -- the place they've been assigned in the liberal demonology. Rather than ruthless industrialists pursuing profit above all, they want to be seen as honest brokers -- sincere, philosophically motivated political actors who want nothing more than to make the world a better place. "Charles Koch and David Koch have championed free-market policies for more than 50 years and criticized those policies that are counter to free-market principles, regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans were in power," Ellender said. "The fact that the President's campaign would prefer to demonize Koch rather than discuss the economic consequences of his policies demonstrates that the Administration and its allies lack a persuasive approach or a sound plan to deal with the serious economic crisis facing our nation."

Whether you believe that the Kochs care more about principle than profits probably depends on your politics. And their battle to rehabilitate their image is surely going nowhere when it comes to the liberals who've made them Public Enemy No. 1. But it's striking that these wealthy billionaires, whose well being surely has very little riding on what the unwashed masses think of them, have become so vigilant -- sensitive, even -- about the abstract stand-in their name has become.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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